The war in Iraq is of course a political issue, both domestically and internationally, and so it is natural that much of the discussion about the war centers on its various political ramifications. But in these heated debates on policy, strategy, funding, etc., there is always a danger of losing sight of the most overwhelmingly important aspect of the conflict: its effects on actual human beings, the suffering it imposes on our fellow creatures. The reality of war is written on the bodies – and seared into the anguished psyches – of the individuals who experience it. That is what war is, that is where it actually exists – in blood, in bone, in the synapses that carry the electric fire of human consciousness.
A new report from Fallujah – the Guernica of the Iraq War – brings this home most forcefully. Two of the great witnesses of this war – Dahr Jamail and his collaborator, Ali al-Fadhily – present disturbing evidence of how the use of chemical weapons against the people of Fallujah during the brutal decimation the city in 2004 continues to bear horrific fruit today:
Babies born in Fallujah are showing illnesses and deformities on a scale never seen before, doctors and residents say. The new cases, and the number of deaths among children, have risen after "special weaponry" was used in the two massive bombing campaigns in Fallujah in 2004.
After denying it at first, the Pentagon admitted in November 2005 that white phosphorous, a restricted incendiary weapon, was used a year earlier in Fallujah. In addition, depleted uranium (DU) munitions, which contain low-level radioactive waste, were used heavily in Fallujah. The Pentagon admits to having used 1,200 tons of DU in Iraq thus far.
Many doctors believe DU to be the cause of a severe increase in the incidence of cancer in Iraq, as well as among US veterans who served in the 1991 Gulf War and through the current occupation.
"We saw all the colors of the rainbow coming out of the exploding American shells and missiles," Ali Sarhan, a 50-year-old teacher who lived through the two US sieges of 2004 told IPS. "I saw bodies that turned into bones and coal right after they were exposed to bombs that we learned later to be phosphorus. The most worrying is that many of our women have suffered loss of their babies, and some had babies born with deformations."
"I had two children who had brain damage from birth," 28-year-old Hayfa' Shukur told IPS. "My husband has been detained by the Americans since November 2004 and so I had to take the children around by myself to hospitals and private clinics. They died. I spent all our savings and borrowed a considerable amount of money."
Shukur said doctors told her that it was use of the restricted weapons that caused her children's brain damage and subsequent deaths, "but none of them had the courage to give me a written report."
"Many babies were born with major congenital malformations," a pediatric doctor, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IPS. "These infants include many with heart defects, cleft lip or palate, Down's syndrome, and limb defects."
...The Fallujah General Hospital administration was unwilling to give any statistics on deformed babies, but one doctor volunteered to speak on condition of anonymity -- for fear of reprisals if seen to be critical of the administration.
"Maternal exposure to toxins and radioactive material can lead to miscarriage and frequent abortions, still birth, and congenital malformation," the doctor told IPS. There have been many such cases, and the government "did not move to contain the damage, or present any assistance to the hospital whatsoever. These cases need intensive international efforts that provide the highest and most recent technologies that we will not have here in a hundred years," he added.
This is the fate of the actual human beings in Fallujah. Behind all the debates and commentary, the think-tank wonkery, the campaign rhetoric, the academic studies and the witlessrantings of TV talking heads, this is the war: a young woman wandering through a ruined city, carrying her broken, dying children to hospitals left without medicine or gear. The fate of Hayfa' Shukur is a direct continuation of the 2004 assault on the city, when, as I noted in a Moscow Times column at the time:
One of the first moves in this magnificent feat of arms was the destruction and capture of medical centers. Twenty doctors – and their patients, including women and children – were killed in an airstrike on one major clinic, the UN Information Service reports, while the city's main hospital was seized in the early hours of the ground assault. Why? Because these places of healing could be used as "propaganda centers," the Pentagon's "information warfare" specialists told the NY Times. Unlike the first attack on Fallujah last spring, there was to be no unseemly footage of gutted children bleeding to death on hospital beds. This time – except for NBC's brief, heavily-edited, quickly-buried clip of the usual lone "bad apple" shooting a wounded Iraqi prisoner – the visuals were rigorously scrubbed.
So while Americans saw stories of rugged "Marlboro Men" winning the day against Satan, they were spared shots of engineers cutting off water and electricity to the city – a flagrant war crime under the Geneva Conventions, as CounterPunch notes, but standard practice throughout the occupation. Nor did pictures of attack helicopters gunning down civilians trying to escape across the Euphrates River – including a family of five – make the TV news, despite the eyewitness account of an AP journalist. Nor were tender American sensibilities subjected to the sight of phosphorous shells bathing enemy fighters – and nearby civilians – with unquenchable chemical fire, literally melting their skin, as the Washington Post reports. Nor did they see the fetus being blown out of the body of Artica Salim when her home was bombed during the "softening-up attacks" that raged relentlessly – and unnoticed – in the closing days of George W. Bush's presidential campaign, the Scotland Sunday Herald reports.
I began that 2004 piece with a quote from Italo Calvino, which to me is one of the very best encapsulations of the horror, and hope, of our human condition:
"The inferno...is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space."
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This story was published on June 13, 2008.